10 Things to Remember at the End of the School Year

  1. You did not die.
  2. You did not kill any of your students.
  3. You are a better teacher now than you were at the beginning of the year.
  4. Your bad days are better than many other teachers’ good days.
  5. You care about your students – enough that you take your own time to read about teaching. And the students can feel that caring.
  6. Some of what you taught, the students will remember. Most of what you taught, the students will forget. But something you taught might have started a process – a journey – a new way of seeing the world — that stuff you may never know about. But trust that it happened.
  7. Next year will be better than this year.
  8. Nobody ever looked back on their life and regretted their time as a teacher.
  9. There was one student out there who needed you. And you were there for him or her.
  10. As a teacher, you spent the year working on the most important things a person can work on: being a better person, and making the world a better place.

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Disaster Relief Form

Q: How do you get struggling students to alert you to problems with major assignments so they will be prepared for time-sensitive class experiences?

Scenario: Today is presentation day. You’ve put students into groups to show their projects and receive peer-feedback. You’ve been mindful to choose groups for the most effective, for productivity. You send the students off to work, and five minutes later, three groups are deep into their work. The fourth group is acting out.

You: Guys, stop messing around. You have work to do.

Student: We finished.

You: FOUR of you shared your projects in five minutes?

Student: Three of us didn’t do the project.

You: What? Why didn’t you email me and say you needed help — days ago?

Student: I’m a teenager. I don’t know how to answer that question.

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Helping Kids Be Compassionate Through Comedy

“I would have been to school on time,” says a student, “But I was stuck behind this old guy who was driving five miles an hour.” The other students groan in solidarity.

Some background: each day, I lead a morning discussion group. We light a candle, set some intentions, offer thanks for whatever we’re thankful for (be it family and freedom or caffeine and cars), and we talk.

Nearly always, the students are thoughtful. They reflect on challenges in their life, vent about their failures, and laugh about whatever has happened to them on the way to school.

I try to allow this space to be as unmoderated as possible, and 98% of the time, it’s perfect.

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How Not To Waste Your Time: 3 Ways to “Always Be Building”

You’ve got to admire successful salespeople. You don’t need to like them, but you’ve got to admire their tenacity. And I’m not talking about the kind of salespeople who hide behind the counter, waiting for you to bring your Cold-Eez up to the counter (those do work, by the way). Rather, I’m talking about the kind who, from the moment you walk into the shop, the dealership, the office – are selling you something, even if you don’t realize it.

The salesperson’s motto? Anyone who’s seen Glengary Glen Ross knows it: Always Be Closing.

Not: Always Be Trying to Sell. Not: Always be concerned that the customer is about to bail.

It’s a mentality. At every moment, you are in the process of “sealing the deal.” Even if the customer doesn’t know it.

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How to communicate more effectively with your students :)

Sometimes, students will resist because something is immoral or unethical. As a first year teacher, a student called me out for mocking a regional accent. I was defensive at first, but she was absolutely right.

But sometimes, students resist because that’s what they do.

In some cases (like class policies), as long as the policies are thoughtful, your best bet is to listen and then use some sort of formula like, “Unfortunately, a hall pass is not a choice. Please use it.”

In other cases, however, student resistance can undermine a learning goal: suddenly, you’re locked in a battle with a student about a concept that is not the point of a lesson.

Here are three classic examples of how to defuse student resistance. All three draw from a simple fable: a tree and a reed argue about their relative strength – but when the storm winds come, the stubborn, brittle tree is uprooted. The reed bends with the wind.

Pre-warning, affirming, joining – and redirecting:

The scenario: you are studying a story where a character exhibits behaviors, traits, or values the students will find objectionable, but it’s beyond the scope of that class to get distracted by those objections.

The solution: warn the students before they read that they will not like some of the things they see. Tell them that their objections are founded and justified. Join with them in agreeing that the behaviors are problematic.

Then, say, “However, we’re going to put those objections in the parking lot. We may get around to them. But we may not. Our goal is not going to be taking Character X to task for how he acts, which is pretty bad, we have to admit. But our goal in this particular class is to look at the circumstances that led him to those behaviors.”

If a student, mid-discussion objects to Character X’s behavior, reaffirm:

“Exactly, and that’s what I meant when I said that there were problematic things about that Character. I wish we had a whole class to dig into that, but I’m afraid it’s beyond the scope of this lesson. So, back we go to the historical circumstances.”

Set up the resistance as a straw-man and then “pretend” the best:

The scenario: a new policy in the school has raised student ire. You feel that students have complained enough about the unfairness of the new policy. You want them to reflect on the potential benefit of the new policy and not turn your allotted five minutes into more griping.

The solution: in your question or prompt, suggest exactly what the students are likely to have concluded, and then redirect:

“The new policy is either total hoo-hah, designed to put you into a prison for your minds, or perhaps it speaks to a conflict of two real values that we can probably agree are both important.  For the moment, let’s just pretend that the rule is not designed simply to take away your rights and make you miserable. What might have been the intent of the principle when she composed the new policy?”

Affirm frustration, relieve the student of needing to argue further, and offer a new option:

The scenario: a student has missed a deadline and has a lousy grade as a result. She has come to argue with you about the grade. You want her to stop fixating on the grade and think constructively about the future.

The solution: meet the student where she is, and paint the picture about what’s coming down the road.

You: Look, tell me if I’m not getting you. You felt like you put in a ton of work on this step of the project and the deadline ruined your grade, right?

Student: Right.

You: And it’s a bummer because why should the deadline affect the grade for the product, right?

Student: Right.

You: So look, on the one hand, I don’t expect you to agree with the late-policy of this class. That’s not your job as a student. You being upset about it makes total sense. If I were you, I’d probably be upset, too. But my job is to have policies that are fair and consistent. That’s what I’m expected to do as a teacher, and the policy can’t change. And we may not see eye to eye on that, and we’re going to need to be okay with that. But more importantly, my job is to help you move past this setback and plan for how the next phase of the project is going to well, and make sure it’s a huge success.

Encouraging Teamwork with Pooled Responses, Individual Assessments

Let’s say that you come up with a cool project for class.

Say: Design and build (using computer drafting programs or 3d craft and found materials) a monument to be placed in the Mall in Washington DC for something that has affected American society during your lifetime.

Let’s say you teach all the concepts of brainstorming and bouncing ideas around – planning, building, revising – getting feedback. The whole shebang.

Now what? You grade it with a rubric?

Sure. You can do that.

I have a better idea:

Have students link to their projects on a shared class document – either to a photo, a screenshot, or to whatever online link brings a visitor to the students’ work – along with a document providing a “tour” of their project, an explanation.

Next, assign an essay that requires students to explore a topic, where a component of the analysis requires them to review their classmates projects and, choosing 2-3:

A. Compare / contrast / critique various projects’ details, approach, and / or themes, statements

B. Riff off ideas begun by various projects

C. Suggest changes the artist could (hypothetically?) make to make a more effective piece – using the phrase: “If this was my project,” I would ______.

Additional Notes:

1. Students may analyze their own buildings; include a slightly adjusted set of prompts for this.

2. This allows even students who bomb the project to recover and learn from the unit.

3. Knowing that others students will see their work is an incentive to create a polished piece of work!

Connecting to Teens: Develop Your Teacher Persona :)

Teenagers are among the most interesting people on Earth, combining paradoxes in fast succession.

  • They are oddly predictable and unusually unpredictable at once.
  • They are idealistic, able to wish for a better world with a zeal many adults cannot fathom – but unbelievably cynical about even the smallest thing.
  • They are passionate and emotional and also can put up emotion-squelching walls that nothing can pass through.
  • Working with them can be exhilarating. Working with them can be devastating.

How can a non-teenager connect to teenagers – visiting their world for inspiring, aiding, supporting and encouraging – for teaching – but not being sucked into the chaos and instability?

Create a persona.

Practice it.

Rely on it.

Now, let me begin with what a Persona is not.

  • A persona is not “being fake.”
  • A persona is not “inauthentic.”
  • A persona is not a “mask.”

On the other hand, a persona is:

  • Your best self.
  • A professional identity that can defer your own needs – and focus on children’s needs.
  • Endlessly positive, endlessly patient.

Is this possible?

It is. On the one hand, this isn’t different from what professionals do all over the world, every day. If you’re a barista at a coffeeshop, the fact that you detest the ever-popular triple-double-decaf-halfcaf is irrelevant. You’re there to make drinks to order.

If you’re a zoo keeper, the fact that you prefer pangolins to penguins is irrelevant. It’s feeding time for both.

On the other hand, some careers require a deeper-dive into the persona.

Stand-up comics: the moment they become frustrated or angry with their audience is the moment they’re booed off-stage.

Therapists: the moment they demonstrate their boredom with the client’s complaining is the moment they lose their client – and deservedly so.

Teachers: the moment their frustration with teenager’s admittedly frustrating behavior becomes evident is the moment they lose the respect of the students. It’s the moment they undermine their own potential to teach.

Your persona is your voicebox. Your buffer. Your shield. It’s the point of contact between you and the children. It’s the difference between Evan Wolkenstein and “Mr. Wolk.”

When I enter the school, I am Mr. Wolk. You can find your persona, too. Maybe our personas can have lunch.

Persona Dos and Don’ts:

Do:

  • Dress the part. Wear something nice every day. Show that you respect your profession, you respect the students, and you respect yourself. For more on the power of a great outfit, check out my blog, Style For Dorks!
  • Reflect on the kind of traits you’d want for someone teaching a child close to your heart. Write about them, talk about them, and look for them – in other people, in movies, in books, and on the street. Practice and emulate.
  • Do develop phrases and mini speeches to help you communicate potentially frustrating messages in a non-emotional way.

Example One: “I just want to remind everyone that this is quiet work time. If you’re talking with your neighbor, now is the time to refocus back on your work.”

Example Two: “I just want to remind everyone that this class is for this class only. If you are [working on homework for another class, passing a note, surfing the net on your phone], it’s time to stop.”

Example Three: “I just want to remind everyone that when I say it’s worktime, it’s not a good time to start a conversation. I’m looking for people to move quickly into work groups.”

Bottom line: You don’t have the brain-space to be creative – and you can’t afford to be reactive. So memorize a nice, little speech, and if you need to repeat it – or say it louder – or call a student’s name and then repeat the speech, so be it. My tip: start your speech with, “I want to remind everyone that…”

For a deeper dive, check out my blog post and animated cartoon, here.

Don’t:

  • Don’t Boast or complain about anything in your life. This is not about you. It’s about the students. That said, disclosure as a way of connecting to students and teaching is acceptable – as long as you never share anything private. Be reflective as you share about the message you are sending. The line is blurry one, so play it safe. If it feels weird to talk about it, it’s probably weird for them to listen to it.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when a student comes to you for a one-on-one on an emotional subject. That’s the time to be your most patient, kind, collected, and professional. Sharing your own pain on any subject isn’t helpful to the student. Being a kind, comforting, professional presence for the student is.
  • Don’t Confuse mock debates for actual debates. Argue about the superiority of the Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. Do not argue about politics, religion, or personal values.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when you think students are not listening. Gossiping in the cafeteria with other teachers, cracking crass jokes – the students will see it. And it will undermine their trust.
  • Don’t Yell. Ever. There has never been a time when I yelled and didn’t regret it afterwards. Speak clearly, speak truly – and be controlled.

Poll Everywhere: 5 Great Ways to Use it

In the last post, I mentioned Poll Everywhere for beginning-of-class polls. Here are 5 ways you may want to try using polls in class.

Note: Poll Everywhere is free and for students answering, anonymous. They can answer from laptops, tablets, or even cell phones! And their reactions to the polls, in my experience, are surprisingly energized and energizing. It’s fun for them to see their vote counted on the shifting bars, and it gives you a “meta-text” to discuss – not only the student’s reaction to a text or an event, and also, students’ reactions to the reactions!

I suggest using Polls as the final step in FTW

I’ll spare you the details of each question. Read them for approach, rather than for speicifc meaning.

In every case, you can:

A: Ask for students to explain their own answer, in discussion or partners.

B: Ask for students to speculate about why the class as a whole answered with whatever trends they answered.

1. In the video you watched as homework, Darren Brown did some pretty amazing things in a small town in England. Which of these most closely matches your reaction?

A. It was inspiring.

B. It was apalling.

C. It was somewhere in between.

D. Something else.

Then, for 5 minutes, students explain their answer in writing.

Then, discuss why you wrote what you wrote.

2. I found today’s review session games:

A. Helpful, fun, and worth doing.

B. Helpful but not fun. Try a different approach.

C. Fun but not helpful. Try a different approach.

D. Hated it.

E. Something else.

Then, offer the chance for students to comment.

3. I found today’s all school assembly:

A. Interesting and relevant to my life.

B. Interesting but not relevant to my life.

C. Relevant to my life but not interesting.

D. Neither interesting nor relevant.

E. Wasn’t there.

F. Slept the whole time.

G. Offensive.

Then, offer the chance for students to comment.

4. Is your relationship with your parents:

A. Almost always harmonious.

B. Mostly harmonious with periods of conflict.

C. Mostly conflict with periods of harmony.

D. Almost always full of conflict.

E. Something else.

Then, offer the chance for students to comment.

5. Did you find the narrator in the story:

A. Mostly sympathetic?

B. Mostly unsympathetic?

C. Right down the middle?

D. Didn’t read it. Life is busy, yo!

Then, offer the chance for students to comment.

Collaboration in the classroom: pooled responses, individual assessments!

Here’s the conundrum:

You’ve composed a prompt for an assessment. It has many possible answers – and many ways to succeed.

That’s good!

But some students, sitting at home, alone, will have trouble formulating the best response.

Take this quick quiz to see if you should use Pooled Responses, Individual Assessments

1. Do you encourage team-work?

2. Do you feel that the best ideas are piggybacked on other good ideas?

3. Can you use a computer?

If you answered YES to all three, then you should use Pooled Responses, Individual Assessments:

1. Ask the prompt in class.

2. Have students individually write 4 answers / solutions to the prompt.

3. Students partner up and together, chose from their (now) 8 responses…their agreed-upon top-three.

4. Students write these 3 solutions / responses in a grid in a Google Doc, accessible to the class.

5.  At home, students will be able to review a dozen or more solutions. Rather than create ex-nihilo, they can modify and build a complete response based on the best of the best.

Caveats:

1. Students must quote the ideas’ authors by name (and are permitted a note card if it’s an in-class essay).

2. Students may quote the idea verbatim, but must put it in quotes.

3. Students will still have to 1) explain the idea in his/her own words, 2) justify the idea with proof texts and additional support.

4. You could even require students to pull at least one idea from his/her own partner session, and decide whether to support or critique a classmates.

The Importance of Schedule Once

The worst thing is… a student not getting the help he needs.

The worst thing is… a student going from struggling, to drowning, because she lets a small problem become a big problem.

The worst thing is… a student letting go of the chance to correct mistakes because of the hassle.

That’s a lot of worst things. But it happens way too often.

Here’s how I dealt with this for eleven years:

  • I lectured students on the need to meet with me, especially when things didn’t go well.
  • I told students to meet with me.
  • I told parents to tell students to meet with me.
  • I threatened students who wouldn’t meet with me.
  • I exacted consequences on students who should’ve met with me but didn’t.

Here’s what happened: students who had the proclivity to ask for help met with me and thrived. Students with social anxiety, who were afraid of my bow ties, or who were too busy never met with me, and paid the consequences.

What did those students learn about the importance of meeting with a teacher? Probably nothing.

Then, there was the other side of the problem. Students would email to ask if they could meet.

Email 1: Student: Dear Mr. Wolk. Can we meet to go over my project?

Email 2: Me: Sure. When are you free?

Email 3: Student: A block and B Block.

Email 4: Me: I teach A, B, and D.

Email 5: Student: How about Lunch?

Email 6: Me: I’m free Tuesday and Wednesday.

Email 7: Student: Wednesday Lunch works. See you then.

That process would take 2 days.

Then, on Wednesday, I would sit at my desk during lunch, until 2 minutes before the bell rang. And that’s when the student would show up to review his project.

OR: When I was free during students’ study halls, half of the period would pass, and then three students would show up at the same time.

I wanted to teach students that when you’re in crisis, you should ask for help. But asking for help was inconvenient for everyone. A pain in the butt. Time consuming and cumbersome. A headache for the student and for me.

There had to be a better way…

  • A way for a student to access my office-hours calendar – in class, immediately after a confusing review session, right when the panic and anxiety hits.
  • A way for the student to offer me two times, and where I could pick the most convenient one.
  • A way for students to reserve 5 – 20 minute blocks which wouldn’t be “poached” by another student dropping by.
  • A way for multiple students to fit into one 55 minute period.
  • A way for me to approve or request a reschedule while on the go – from my phone.
  • A way to sync appointments with my own Google Calendar and with my school’s Outlook system.
  • A way for me to survey all the times a student has met with me, to include as feedback on ClassDojo.

As it turns out, there was. IS. Schedule Once – I used the trial free account, then upgraded (gladly) to the pro account. It’s worth it.

I have more students visiting than ever before, but in a more orderly, dependable way. A student who panics when receiving a low grade on a test knows exactly what to do: make an appointment, now.

It’s a good thing.